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Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Down the Great River Road (aka the Blues Highway) - Memphis and Cairo IL

I have been away from my blog for a few days. I often forget about the damn thing for a while, then try to resurrect it. Since I am working from my own leaky memory, I can forget what I was going to say if I wait too long. Since Memphis is such a rockin' place, I wanted to finish up the write up of my spring road trip.
We left New Madrid, exited the Missouri "boot heel" and crossed into Arkansas. We bumbled down the road until we hit Memphis. I have several impressions of this terrific river city:

  • The Peabody Hotel (see picture of the roof-top sign above) is beyond fabulous. We hung out in the lobby to see the famous "duck march" from the fountain to the elevators (the ducks quit for the day at 5PM and head to the roof to their penthouse residence). Next time I go to Memphis, I am going to stay at the Peabody.

  • This is no place for a vegan. Memphis BBQ is a daily staple, and I did not see any restaurants offering barbecued tofu. I highly recommend Charlie Vergos' Rendevous in downtown Memphis, a rambling basement-level establishment that opened in 1948. Charlie Vergos died about a year ago at the age of 84; he was a huge civic booster in Memphis. The dry-rubbed ribs at the Rendevous are terrific and the brisket is even better. Everyone hits the Rendevous eventually - Bill Clinton, George Bush, Frank Sinatra, the Rolling Stones, Al Green, Bill Cosby, Justin Timberlake, etc. etc.

  • Memphis has one of the best vintage surface rail systems in America - at least as beautiful as the St. Charles line in New Orleans. The trolley cars are meticulously restored and totally vintage - each one is a different size, shape and color. The old trolley cars were originally in service in the U.S., Australia and Portugal. Memphis dismantled its trolley system in the 1940's; the system was relaunched in 1993. The trolleys run down Main Street, which is full of trendy bars, restaurants and hotels. This downtown section of Memphis used to be pretty shabby.

  • Memphis has a terrific zoo. It was named the best zoo in the U.S. by The exhibits all look brand new, and the place is huge. I especially enjoyed the opportunity to hang out and stare at the giant pandas, up close. Those suckers eat a helluva lot of bamboo, yo.

  • Beale Street is very cool, but too dang loud. I love blues and funk music, and some of the bands I heard in the Beale Street bars were very talented. All of them had the volume knob cranked to "11." Since all the bars have their doors wide open, the sound pours into the street, creating a sonic flood that is painful to hear.

  • Confederate Park was pretty creepy. The statue of Jefferson Davis (a traitor to the United States, in my opinion) and the general concept behind the park seemed at odds with modern Memphis. Call me a liberal, but I think that the Confederates and the Nazis had pretty similar views of the world - racism and facism are not values to be celebrated via statues and parks.
  • We spent an extra day in Memphis, then we had to hot-foot it back to Chicago. We did visit Cairo IL on the way home. Cairo is the birthplace of George "Harmonica" Smith, one of my musical heroes (he was a an awesome and innovative blues harmonica player and vocalist who eventually moved to Los Angeles). I could find no reference to George in the town, and Cairo was not looking very prosperous. The place had an air of faded glory; historic buildings have sunk into disrepair. The folks on the street look like they are just getting by. We left the place feeling a bit low.

    And that is it - we raced north on the interstate to get home in time for dinner. Road trips rock.

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